The Story of Salvation so far has took us from the garden of Eden, to the land of Canaan, to slavery in Egypt, and now we find the Israelites wondering in the desert.
Moses had led them out of Egypt and it’s been almost nonstop complaints since then. Even after all the things that God had done for them, at the first signs of adversity they throw up their hands and lament that the ever left Egypt.
They have seen the Red Sea parted, they saw Pharaoh’s army drown, they received the Ten Commandments from God, they were led by a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, they were fed by manna from heaven; and still they just wanted to be back in a state of slavery were they weren’t forced to struggle for survival.
This is where we find them in this installment of the Story of Salvation. Another day another problem, but instead of relying on God, they ask to return to slavery.
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of E’dom; and the people became impatient on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.”
Instead of trusting God and His promises, they decide to try complaining one more time. It seems that being ungrateful is their standard operating procedure.
So God says He’s had enough, and puts the people into a position that they must rely on Him or die.
Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many sons of Israel died. And the people came to Moses, and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it up as a sign; and every one who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it up as a sign; and if a serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.
God gets fed up with this nonstop complaining, and sends “fiery serpents” into their camp.
How could a loving God do something like that? The same way that sometimes God has to hit us over the head to get our attention even today. But like all the other times that His people rebel against His plan, God doesn’t just leave them or abandon them. He offers them redemption, just as He offers all mankind redemption on Calvary over 1500 years later.
He instructs Moses to make what amounts to a replica of the snakes so that when the people look upon it they’ll be healed. And that bronze serpent is what this installment of the series is about, because even though it’s only a few verses in a book that most Christians couldn’t even name, it has a lot of importance to us to this day.
Things to learn from the bronze serpent
There are several things I’d like to point out about the bronze serpent, some are obvious and some are more obscure.
- 1. The bronze serpent as a type of Christ
Now when I say “a type of Christ” what I mean is that we can see through typology that the bronze serpent is an analogy for Christ.
Jesus says as much in His conversation with Nicodemus;
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
Just as anyone in the desert that looked upon the bronze serpent with faith was saved, so too anyone who looks with faith upon Jesus, and His cross, will be saved.
Just like how Christ shed His Precious Blood for all, but only those who respond to His grace will be saved; so too the bronze serpent was available for all but only those that responded to the grace of God were saved.
- 2. It points to the sacraments
Here’s what the Catechism has to say about sacraments:
CCC 1131 “The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions.”
The bronze serpent was also an “efficacious sign of grace,” it was efficacious in that it did what it set out to do, and it was a sign in that it was visible for all.
Why did God require a serpent statue to heal the Israelites? Why does God require that we be baptized in water? Why did Naaman have to bathe in the Jordan to be healed (2 kings 5)? Why did Jesus use spit (John 9:6) to heal the blind man, when He could’ve just spoke a word and healed him?
These are all instances of God using things around us, be they a river, a bronze serpent or divine saliva, to dispense His graces and healing for us. God could’ve just healed those bitten by the snakes, but He was showing us that we have to cooperate with His grace and respond to His call to be saved.
We must always remember that God is not bound by the sacraments in any way. We are bound by them because we are to obey all the Christ commanded and taught (Matthew 28:20), but God can dispense His grace outside of the sacraments if He chooses too. This is why we believe that baptism is necessary for salvation, but an unbaptized person can be saved in certain situations (baptism of desire or baptism of blood being two examples. See CCC 1257-1259 for more.
Also, the bronze serpent had no power of its own, it wasn’t magical. It’s power came from the fact that it was a sign of faith and the providence of God. Sometimes people impart divine power to created beings and things, and that leads us to the final point.
- 3. Misuse of God’s gifts
Many years after the events recorded in Numbers chapter 21 the bronze serpent reappeared. But this time it isn’t mentioned in a very good light.
In the third year of Hoshea son of Elah, king of Israel, Hezekiah the son of Ahaz, king of Judah, began to reign. He removed the high places, and broke the pillars, and cut down the Asherah. And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the sons of Israel had burned incense to it; it was called Nehushtan.
2 Kings 18:1 & 4
This was pure idolatry, almost the same as the golden calf in Exodus, but with one big difference. The golden calf was made by man in defiance of God, the bronze serpent was made by man in obedience to God.
So how can something like this come so far from its original use and purpose?
It’s not so hard to imagine, we see it all around us today. Although it doesn’t rise to the level of idolatry, lots of christians, including many Catholics, engage in superstition every day.
Let’s take a look at how the catechism defines superstition:
CCC 2111: Superstition is the deviation of religious feeling and of the practices this feeling imposes. It can even affect the worship we offer the true God, e.g., when one attributes an importance in some way magical to certain practices otherwise lawful or necessary. To attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand, is to fall into superstition.
I’ve seen gang members that insist on wearing a rosary or crucifix because they believe it will protect them. I’ve seen people who will say a certain prayer, and say it a particular number of times, in the belief that this will give them the protection or favor they seek. At times, I have been these people myself.
But CCC 2111 rejects these practices, it says “To attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their performance” is to fall into superstition. To wear a crucifix as a talisman is superstitious, same with a rosary.
To say 10 Our Fathers, without the internal disposition of prayer, thinking that God will grant your petition because of the number of prayers said, reduces the Creator of the universe to nothing more than a genie in a lamp.
This doesn’t mean that repeating a prayer, or praying a set number of prayers like the rosary or chaplet, is without merit or not efficacious. We just can’t say them as though our effort is what is efficacious, it is God that answers prayers according to His will, we can’t pigeon hole Him and force His hand. To think that we can is not in line with Catholicism, but more like a magic trick.
CCC 2138: Superstition is a departure from the worship that we give to the true God. It is manifested in idolatry, as well as in various forms of divination and magic.
Whenever we are tempted to treat a sacramental or a prayer as a talisman, or as any kind of superstition, instead of a grace from God to grow closer to Him, let us remember the way that the people of Judah fell into idolatry with the Bronze Serpent.